Original Play: Coming to the flow

Dr. O. Fred Donaldson worked as a Professor at Universities in Washington and California. He is renowned as a playing expert for more than 30 years. He discovered the "Original Play"® which spreads around the world in his workshops.

While playing with children and wild wolves, dolphins, bears, lions and elephants he found a common pattern that is inherent in each of us. Every child has the natural instinct to play freely and confidently. Only cultural influences change our playing behaviour and suddenly winning gains of importance. Then playing changes into competition and the relaxed play mates become rivals. Especially in our times our children (and ourselves) need more relaxation in order to experience the “flowing” as it is described by Fred Donaldson. Ursula Fournier was talking with him. 


Fred, some years ago I participated in one of your workshops. I can very well remember this extraordinary experience. We crawled on our knees and romped around on thick gymnastics mats. It was a rediscovery of a feeling deep inside but rarely experienced in our adult everyday life. As long as our children are young we make the wonderful experience of trustfully frolicking together with them. You say: “The children of this world are waiting that we sit down on the floor and are there for them.” Could you explain us shortly: What is “original playing”?

Original play is a gift from Creation to all life so that we might feel our belonging to all life. Original play is a breathtakingly ingenious neural pattern recognition system inherent in life that searches for and discovers patterns of kindness among people and other living beings. Five year old David gave the best definition of original play when he said that, “Original play is when we don’t know that we are different from each other.” It is very important to understand that original play is not merely another form of cultural play, like sport and imaginative play. The unique power and benefits of original play are derived from the fact that its source lies outside culture. This means that we do not participate in original play as cultural categories such as male or female, parent or child, therapist or patient.


How does the relationship or being together change if children are allowed to play with their mothers and fathers in this natural way?

Playing with my own children changed who I am as a father. I became more sensitive, aware, and responsive to my children’s needs. Our play every day created a sense of trust that was not merely an idea but a felt part of our relationships. For example, our family did not go through the awkward stage of no or less touch that so often occurs in a family when the children become teenagers. Safe, affectionate touch remained an integral part of our relationships. Consequently, when there was a crisis we had the benefit of years of appropriate touch helping us literally to “stay in touch” with each other. Touch is an important part of human life. Pats on the head and handshakes are not enough for a human being. If children are not taught how to give and receive safe, loving touch they will not be able to respond when parents are older and in need of such touch themselves.

Young children love to frolic around with mum or dad. But what’s about our teenagers? 

Usually parents and teenagers stop to play and touch for at least four reasons. First, play and touch are commonly part of our cultural patterns and roles. In this regard people think that play and its touch are childish and inappropriate for older people. Second, parents become afraid because neither they nor their teenagers know how to touch safely and affectionately. Too often touch becomes a form of contest and/or sex. Third, often what parents call play, especially between fathers and sons, is not play but contest behavior. Fourth, it is difficult, but necessary, to put aside our cultural and social roles when we participate in original play. The usual consequence of these reasons is that there is a mutual withdrawal in which parents and teenagers resort to formal touch such as handshakes or no touch at all. One teenage mother cried as she asked me how to play with her son. She didn’t want him to grow up using abusive touch like his absent father or her own father. I told her that she could play with her son and model for him the kind of safe touch that is appropriate. The reason she would be able to do this is that when she participates in original play with her son she will be neither mother nor father.


When we play originally we come to the “flow”. Modern brain research has shown the benefit of this relaxed state for the development and the learning capacities of children. Play is vital for survival. While playing the human and animal children learn in a safe environment how to behave in the world and find out how to live a healthy and long life. Fred, you name the original play even a way of healing?

Yes, Original play is Creation’s way of healing our fears. Humans act as though the universe is an unsafe place in which we must defend ourselves. We assume we have no choice but to be aggressors or victims. We are taught to defend ourselves constantly and at all costs. We do this as individuals, groups and nations. However it is measured fear is not cost effective; it costs humans huge amounts of time, energy, and money. I believe that original play’s kindness destructures, deprograms and deconditions fear making whole new orientations possible. It seems clear that the play brain is different from the contest brain, the loving brain is different from the fearful brain. It is as if original play remaps the brain, enabling the brain to process information much differently than in contest consciousness. Original play’s kindness opens us to a range of choice in life simply unavailable to the fearful contesting mind. Original play drops out the psychic and social, and even species self, and in the process disrupts our automatic fear response and transforms what constitutes our self defense relationship with reality. Original play promotes neural plasticity and strengthens specific neurological circuits that generate peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion. Original play allows us to thrive, not merely survive. Optimal learning requires that a child or any human being not be using his or her energy in defending themselves against physical, emotional or intellectual attacks. In school, for example, energy used by children in self defense cannot be used for other learning. Isolation, victimization, aggression are health risks shaping not only children’s behavior but also their brains. Untouched humans are rigid, hard, and brittle. People who use their hands in original play have a way of knowing about the world that is inaccessible to those who do not. We learn in original play to be touched by the world and, in turn, touch the world with safety and compassion. Through touch we pass on a literal body of knowledge which is largely invisible to the untrained hand and eye. This is the reciprocity necessary to transform the world.


Your concept was prized by the U.N. as prevention against violence. From trainings for children’s security and prevention against abuse and violence we know about the importance of learning the difference between good and bad touch. But what’s about danger of abuse in the context of the original play? As a mother I’m very careful in this regard. How do we know in which situation or with which person my child is allowed to play and touch in this way?

I understand the need to be careful, but when “being careful” is based on fear it is not an effective education. For example, when it comes to touch this often results in adults teaching children that no touch teaches good touch. It doesn’t. It is my experience that adults do not know the difference between good and bad touch. If we did we wouldn’t be living in the fearful state that we are now in. No touch is not good touch; it is neglect. When children are not touched, held or surrounded with affection, the neural systems required for learning and safety are not developed. The result is individuals who are self-centered, violent, and abusive, drug dependent, depressed, hypervigilent, and authoritarian.

Some years ago I was invited to visit an elephant reserve in South Africa. The reserve had six baby orphan elephants and an old matriarch. The owners of the reserve wanted to put the six babies with the matriarch back into the wild but were worried that in doing so they would endanger both the babies and the other animals as well as the local population, because male orphan elephants who do not get the touch they need as youngsters can become rogues. This is much the same as in human societies. There are two important points here. First, no touch does not equal good touch. Secondly, adults must model for children good touch that is neither aggressive nor does it lead to victimization. Original play models good, safe touch. I have played with many victims of abuse, adults and children, around the world. Original play teaches them the difference between good and bad touch. As one ten year old girl put it, “Original play is being able to tell the world that you don’t like what it is doing to you and not harming anyone while you do it.” And a six year old who asked his teacher after playing “Can we practice playing? Because if we get good at it and learn how not to hurt and get hurt.”


In Western cultures many people solve conflicts by fight or flight. If both reactions are not possible we are powerless. Fred, how do you manage that even aggressive youngsters find back to their peaceful manners?

It’s not only Western cultures that fight. In a world of diversity, humans don’t know what to do with our differences. So, we become afraid of what is different, whether this is religion, race, culture, social group, language.  In such a fearful world we believe that fight or flight are normal, natural, and necessary - and our only choices. We haven’t learned that conflict and revenge do not solve our problems. Self defense, social isolation, aggression, and victimization are health risks for all children, not just coping strategies for those directly impacted by violence.  A child who feels victimized, unwanted or isolated experiences a kind of poverty that is deeper and more painful than the loss of food. 

Original play is a different model of relationship. It is not based on fear. Original play is based on two shared messages: you are lovable. There is nothing to be afraid of. In our world these seem absurd or even suicidal. But in reality love is the only force that can keep us safe. I have played with terminally ill cancer patients and gang members, street kids and man and women in prison. They all ask me, „Why should I play? My life is at risk.” I respond that is exactly why they should play. I tell them that play is about safety; it is a process that keeps you more alive while you are alive. After playing they understand this not merely as a nice idea but as a real life process. As one man in a South African prison said to me, „Fred I want you to come back so that I can learn how to play with the children in the township so they will not end up here like me.“ In our workshops a parent can make themselves accessible to the lessons that children can teach. Also it enables parents to know how to provide safe and living environments within which they and their children can play.


Your project "Sanctuary Alliance" supports the protection of child’s play in many countries. Could you tell us about it?

The purpose of the „Sanctuary Alliance“ is to make children safe, preserve and sustain childhood, and reduce conflict.  We do this by creating human beings who are sanctuaries for children and childhood. This involves a restructuring of the social contract between adults and children. The project is based on the following principles: To develop normally every child needs to feel safe and loved. Children’s energy used in self-defense cannot be used for other learning. Safe kind play is inherent in every child. Love is stronger than fear. Feeling safe and loved is the foundation for optimal development and learning. What makes this project unique is that is the first of its kind to demonstrate that children have something valuable to offer the world.  This “something” is the trust relationship inherent in children’s original play. This trust sustains a sense of belonging that transcends medical, social and cultural differences. For example, currently the project is involved with a school exchange program involving children from Poland, Austria, Germany, and Italy.


Finally: I have read that you don’t want to play with sharks. Did you change your mind in the meantime?

You are right it is my mind that is the problem. A Native American elder once told me that, “Snakes don’t bite people; they bite what people think.” The problem isn’t the sharks, but how I think about them. I still haven’t played with sharks. Since I believe that original play is a gift to all life, I expect that my play with sharks will be a matter of time and a change of mind.


Fred, thank you very much fort the enriching talk. I wish you a lot of strength for your wonderful projects. Let us hope that more and more people will discover this most rewarding kind of playing together for their children and for themselves. 


Fred Donaldson’s book "Playing by Heart" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

For further information see www.originalplay.com


UF/Photo: with kind permission of Fred Donaldson